Préval leads the way for a new Haiti

Jacqueline Charles, writing for the Miami Heald, looks at how Haitian President René Preval, from dispatching government loaders to hiring consultants, is laying a foundation for a new Haiti.

Deep in the ravine amid the narrow corridors and chaotic construction, workers in T-shirts push wheelbarrows up and down a newly carved dirt path as rubble-filled buckets are passed in a human chain. At the top of the steep hill, a clear view of the crumbled presidential palace and near-collapsed capital emerge as empty lots replace mounds of rubble.

For two months, Haitian President René Préval has been quietly laying the foundation for his quake-wrecked nation’s rebuilding, transforming Fort National, a densely populated slum, into ground zero of Haiti’s recovery efforts. Often criticized for inaction, Préval has personally dispatched government top loaders and bulldozers to some of the hardest-hit neighborhoods, asked international aid agencies to send displaced residents to clean up their own streets, and sat with neighborhood leaders and camp dwellers to determine their needs. “Temporary shelters are not the solution,” Préval told The Miami Herald this week. “There just isn’t enough space. They are a solution to help people get from underneath tents. But they are not a housing solution. We have to build up.”

A little more than six months after the worst natural disaster in the Western Hemisphere, reconstruction remains slow: Just 275,000 of an estimated 20 million cubic meters of rubble have been removed. But Préval said he’s working on a three-prong reconstruction plan that includes using government heavy equipment to allow many of the estimated 1.5 million displaced quake victims to return to their neighborhoods, and having the government construct affordable multi-story apartments. At the same time, he’s pushing an innovative plan to redevelop downtown from the waterfront to the Champ de Mars with the help of Central Bank financing, and by using rubble to extend the Port-au-Prince harbor.

The Central Bank would use $150 million to build about two dozen modern buildings. The buildings would be leased to the state, and be part of a new administrative and financial district that includes hotels, apartment complexes, 15 government ministries, the palace of justice, and parliament. The proposals are expected to go before the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission when it meets next month.

The initiatives come as many here speculate on who Préval will tap as his successor, Haiti struggles to get the United States and other donors to make good on $5.3 billion in promised aid, and U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, once more blasts Préval over his leadership in a report released Thursday. “I don’t have flashy leadership,” he said. “I have a leadership that is tranquil.”

For now, the progress of his efforts can be seen in Fort National, where government equipment with the words Ayiti Pap Peri — Haiti Will Not Die — emblazoned on the side work alongside residents. “If someone had never visited Fort National . . . they would think nothing has been done,” said Jean-Michel Olophene, a resident-turned-leader inside the Champ de Mars camp. “But if you saw what it looked like before, you would realize that an immense amount of progress has been made.”

Last weekend, Préval made his first foray into the hard-hit community since the 7.0 earthquake.

“Everyone was happy, but I wasn’t happy,” he said. “I did not see the solution for relocating people.”

So far, the idea of having residents travel several flights of stairs — as opposed to several miles from the city — for housing seems to have the support of the co-chairs of the commission, Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive and former President Bill Clinton. “If we can build multi-story housing, it would make the city less dense even with the same population,” Clinton said in a meeting with foreign donors this week, adding that any future construction would have to be anti-seismic and meet code.

Préval says Haiti’s ongoing challenges — the lack of temporary shelters, the logistics of removing rubble from densely populated neighborhoods and bringing together different groups, make it clear, “we have to provide the solutions.” For instance, while outside government organizations “worked on their own, did what they wanted, we are working with the people, bringing together leaders of the camps and of the popular neighborhoods and asking them what route should we take.”

So far the path appears to be winning fans among both foreign diplomats who laud the progress, and residents living in other hard-hit communities such as Avenue Poupelard, who recently asked for similar assistance as Fort National. To cope with the growing demand, a dispatching center was recently set up on the grounds of the palace to field calls. The government also cut a deal with the neighboring Dominican Republic to put 50 additional trucks at its disposal to clear and cart away rubble.

Préval will not say how much the pilot project is costing his cash-strapped government that received $35 million in donations. Meanwhile, faced with few dump sites for the rubble, Préval has asked one of his chief engineers to order up a study of the soil composition of the Port-au-Prince harbor as he considers using debris to extend the harbor. The vision of an extended, remodeled waterfront would not just offer unchartered territory for prime development, but also take it back from the anarchist development that has taken over the capital and led to a government-estimated 300,000 dead from the quake. “While others are talking about recycling the debris for road construction and other things, we’ll take it and do this instead,” Préval said. “We are better off enlarging the harbor for new development.”

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